…three years ago, my own ghost came in the form of a bearded, tatted up man with stick legs and Prada boots. A fashion dude. He was a handsome nobody—anonymous and available, occupying but a few short rows of a Google image search query. He traveled the circuit—Milan, Paris, London, New York—sitting side-by-side with those famous fashion bloggers, the It Girls, buyers from Bergdorfs, but nobody cared about him yet. He, like most normal people, slipped under the radar. He emailed me from London the first time he was shot for the Sartorialist, looking solemn and gray in front of a stone wall, blue coat belling around his narrow frame, hands crossed politely in front of him. “Don’t make fun of me,” he begged, as I sent him the choicer of the comments already swiftly developing beneath the image, delighting in the panty-dropping hysteria my sort-of-boyfriend was capable of causing.Click here to read more.
I’m not quite sure how the interaction begins, being that, when alone, I often dial my face in at an uninviting hostile resting position – especially when traveling in a foreign country. This, I believe, ensures that I will not be the subject of my own Taken-esque autobiography, provided I survive to tell about how I lived through a pimp-mandated heroin addiction and enslavement in a black-market prostitution ring (though, let’s be honest, I’m probably too old to even be considered for such abductions). Needless to say, anyone willing to approach me thereby has the brave fortitude of a climber taking to Mount Everest barefoot. Or, you know, they’re just an idiot.
Eva is downstairs handling jewelry-line-business stuff while I’ve been left to my own devices, wandering around the cavernous halls of an accessories trade show. I’ve worked these types of environments before as a model and their general unpleasantness triggers a muscle memory release of anti-endorphins, sucking the life out of me while I walk down the rows of leather goods and hand-beaded belts, past sales reps carrying undercooked stacks of Parisian pizza and looking positively grim. Prince plays out of speakers somewhere. Murder me.
Exhausted from a night spent dancing to the same J. Lo song over and over again, I sit down across from a cafeteria selling the aforementioned pizzas.
I look up at the face of a man in his mid-60s, wearing glasses and tufts of thick white hair.
I have been mistaken for a few things in my day – Russian model, that girl some guy met at Art Basel last December, Julia Stiles – but never Italian. My German and Dutch heritage paints me all the blonde-haired-blue-eyed colors of a Hitler Youth rainbow. Even Northern Italian would be a stretch.
“Where are a’you from?”
“Ahhh! New York, A’love New York. You are here for fashion week modeling?”
I lie because it’s easier than explaining that my friend has an apartment and I’m officially one of those irresponsible degenerates who can add “lady who lunches” to her impressive list of accomplishments. I’m in Paris for six days doing nearly positively nothing aside from eating, drinking, and seeing friends, which I guess qualifies itself as a vacation.
“Me too!” he starts. “I’m here for shooting. We doing Hermes tomorrow.”
Given his age, I would assume that he was a photographer, or someone that has otherwise given up vanity in favor of an occupation that requires legitimate skill and intelligence. He sits next to me before I can protest and pulls out a Blackberry from 2006. And then he starts showing me photos from all of his “campaigns.”
“I’m a model, too! See!”
The Male Model of Antiquity thumbs through photo after photo of him wearing futuristic reading glasses and posing with random young Asian women. It’s nearly the same image every time, with badly Photoshopped advertising copy placed with great aesthetic irreverence. I have no idea what the hell I’m looking at. “Oh!” I want to say. “Glamour shots by Deb? I know those!”
Oddly, at this point his English devolves into indecipherable mumbling, as though learning how to purposefully mistake young women for Italians and then share the fact that you’re an aging male model is as far as he got in his Rosetta Stone: English tutorial. From this point forward, there’s a lot of vigorous head-nodding and fake laughing on my part, while he begins to talk to me in full-blown Italian.
I think he complains about agencies.
I think he tells me he worked for Chanel.
I think he says something about making $15,000 yesterday.
I couldn’t tell you; I have no idea what this guy is talking about, or, for that matter, what he’s doing walking around a jewelry trade show if he’s so fabulous and in-demand.
One of the Prince songs that’s been playing wraps up, and I take the opportunity to shut down this interaction before it goes anywhere weird. Maybe not like prostitution-ring weird, but “Can I a’take you out to dinner weird.”
It’s Sunday morning and the whole city steeps in butter – the smell of croissants and burnt quiche seeping from under door jams and through cracked windows. The sun’s out for the first time in days, warming the lumpy unpaved pathways in front of the Louvre, sitting on the shoulders of our black coats.
“Thank fucking God!” I yell. Paris can often be so drab, so irrepressibly gray. That, and my warm wool coat is back in Brooklyn, sitting on a wire hanger at my local drycleaners doing me no amount of good. I’ve been freezing for three whole days.
Michelle and I are late again for brunch, routinely waking up about two hours too late for a proper morning. By the time we arrive, Café de Flore is out of their breadstuff and nearly all of the breakfast options. No pan au chocolate for us today, just “baguette and…uhhhh…jam…if you want” says our server. Michelle exhales loudly and considers the laminate menu. Americans are the most spoiled citizens of the world. In New York, I can get bananas at 4 a.m. and foie gras from Blue Ribbon at 3 (you know, in theory). But here, there are constraints for every purchase, short windows of opportunity for every desire. Paris is the land of “Is Not Possible.”
They’ve seated us in between a group of four men who apparently got served the last of the croissants and the most silent lesbian couple in all of Europe, likely pioneers of the movement (judging from their heartiness of build, also likely German).
I look around the room for perhaps hints of the café’s storied history. I try to imagine Ernest Hemingway or Truman Capote sitting at these sticky wooden tables, around the red vinyl banquets, their reflections bouncing off of the mirrors placed between cheap-looking marble columns. I take a note on my iPhone: Typing on this feels like literary blasphemy.
“Hey, is that Waris?”
In the foreground of two fashionable women is the back of a white turban hovering above a nicely tailored suit. Given the week, and the context, you hardly need to even bother asking.
“Yeaaahhhhh… I think so.”
Why I know the names of designers and niche fashion celebrities but I probably can’t list all of the states in my own country is beyond me. I hate myself.
Michelle orders quiche with salmon and chives. “And for you?” the server asks. He squeezes my shoulder when I tell him “just coffee” and smiles that “I would try to have sex with you in a back alley” smile before he walks away. If Michelle were closer, he’d likely squeeze her, too — a ménage trois of gross discomfort and European sexual harassment. Unfortunately, I’m the one most convenient for groping. The rest of the meal will be spent fielding various untoward advances, my least favorite being the needless proximity of his crotch to my body whenever he places something on the table. Each time, I look behind him to see if there is anything forcing him towards me, perhaps a crushing mass of hungry tourists, only to find a vast and empty nothingness.
Pardon me, while I place this plate… right… here…
I immediately regret having unbuttoned my blouse on account of the stifling heat inside the café and Michelle’s comment about me dressing like Annie Hall, giving our server carte blache access to my non-existent cleavage, a pale expanse of taut skin pulled over sternum bones like a drum.
“You good?” he asks, squeezing my shoulder again. I’m waiting for him to pat my head or stick his tongue in my ear.
“Bathroom?” I ask. “I mean, water closet? Restroom?” Asking where to pee in Europe always leaves me fraught with lingering anxiety.
“Upstairs,” he says, squeezing me one more time and then letting me pass as I head towards a narrow set of stairs, just behind a woman with a Fendi bag and a white Labradoodle. How very Hemingway.
Dinner’s at Carine. The usual. John and Lucas are already waiting out front, a cigarette moving between John’s hand and mouth. Also the usual. Francesco comes in from the other direction, wearing a massive puffy coat and a smile that never leaves him. I haven’t seen him since June in New York. It was about sixty degrees warmer.
Ciao, ciao, ciao…
They give us a table at the back of a very small, very empty room. Eating at Carine is like eating in your grandmother’s armoir. You can touch both sides of the wall lying on the floor with your arms outstretched. The bathroom is down an impossibly narrow set of stairs, the ceiling poised to knock your head off if you’re not too careful and the door-jam into the water closet smaller still. The entire process is like a gradual compression of space, until you are finally inside, behind a door more suited for Alice in Wonderland after a bottle of Drink This!
Lucas calls it “The John Malcovich” bathroom.
The restaurant is often so packed we’re left to wait on the sidewalk drinking complimentary champagne and eating a plate of apologetic proscuitto. Last summer, they dragged a table out in between two parked cars and we ate there. Sometimes Paris has a lawless, “Go fuck yourself” quality to it that can be enormously charming, like the older sibling who’s learned how to manipulate the elders and get away with everything. This kind of stuff would never happen in America. No, America’s the serious middle child who has to stand straight and fly right, exclaiming, “We left for a reason!” while making up strict rules for speeding and drinking in public.
The boys order heaps of pasta – either the sea urchin or with butter and a mountain of truffle shavings. Everyone gets starters. We share a bottle of wine. During fashion week, everyone eats like kings.
“Cher is here,” Francesco whispers to me.
I look across the room towards the entrance. Sure enough, Cher sits there, a two-foot tall fur hat propped up on her head, taking up all the available space between her on either side. Candlelight bounces off of buttery, acid-peeled skin, and casts odd shadows in the hollows of her eyes. Your brain juggles what should be with what is. It knows Cher is 100 years old, and that Cher should look 100 years old, but here she is before you, looking neither young nor old, with pulled back baby skin and holes for eyes.
“She looks good, no?” Francesco says.
True, from far away, the woman has better skin than I do, but upon further research, it turns out Cher is not 100 years old, but 66, which puts her a year below Helen Mirren, who is still one foxy, natural (?) babe. In trying to look 28, Cher’s managed to add on another 10 or 15 very confused years. That being said, Cher is still Cher. My love for her is devotional, if for no other reason than the movie Mermaids.
“I feel gypped she didn’t come in wearing fishnets.”
One of the highlights of my trip will be listening to Cher, in that gorgeous iconic voice of hers, relay her dinner order to the server.
Someone pays for dinner and we leave for another café, sitting outside under shitty heat lamps while the boys drink out of fancy glasses. Francesco’s about to go home and sleep when he gets a text message from a friend heading to a party in Pigalle.
John hates Pigalle. Pigalle is the sort of trashy, red-light district that one might find in gritty independent films filled with neon lights and drug addicts. Francesco says everyone is at some place called Foiles Pigalle for such-and-such an after-party. “Let’s go, no?” he asks, and then runs inside and pays the bill just to hurry things along.
From the outside, Foiles Pigalle looks like a set piece from a Gaspar Noe movie, the words “PARIS BY NIGHT” and “DISCOTHEQUE” glowing in red, some of the neon lettering blown out and playing understudy to the rest. I think there’s a sexy cat woman riding a piece of the signage; I can’t tell.
The security guards know Francesco because everyone knows Francesco. We walk through the ropes and into a black hallway that reminds me of every downtrodden, abused concert venue on the Sunset Strip. Once inside, the walls alternate between red and pink, sometimes purple. There’s a disco ball hanging over the dance floor and a DJ on an elevated stage at the back. I’m told that it was a massively popular gay club back in the ‘90s.
John and Lucas stand at the back, staying near the exit for any swift emergency departure. Francesco flits around, introducing everyone to everyone. Here’s this model, here’s this person, and that one, and this, and that. She’s the best. He’s amazing. I love, love, love her. He’s like a Rolodex with the heart of gold.
The Berlin babe DJ is playing a rotation of heavy, banging house music. John’s upstairs smoking in a cigarette cave with a friend. Lucas has peeled himself away from the bar and reluctantly dances, shifting his feet from left to right and back again. The old wooden floor groans under the negligible weight of models and other fashion people, the average BMI coming in at about that of a prepubescent 12 year old.
And when the guy wearing the kilt saddles up to the guy wearing monk’s garb, I know it’s time to leave.
(Photo courtesy of Living Travel)
The old woman next to me begins to clear her throat immediately after sitting down, the phlegm dragging against her esophagus until it makes it way into her mouth and screams for release, finding an exit between her parted lips. After a ceaseless twenty minutes of this, it becomes obvious that this is a condition that plagues her chronically, and it will be a condition I will be plagued by for the next seven hours to Paris.
“Give her a cough drop?” a friend advises via text.
“Is it alright to kill grandmothers?” I respond.
Four months of Bikram yoga have done wonders for my in-flight anxiety (though, apparently, not my tolerance). The plane hurtles forward until we are airborne. I breathe deeply and hear my half-naked teacher with the shaved head and the impressive ab muscles screaming “Puuusssssshhhhhhh the floor away! PUSH!!!!!!!” – only I imagine it’s the plane pushing from the earth, which gives the whole venture a deceivingly safe quality to it, one I would not ordinarily fall for. For the rest of the flight, we travel over the Atlantic on a pair of sturdy, invisible arms, which provides me with more confidence than any scientific tutorial on aeronautics.
An hour in, the flight attendants are making their rounds with the usual “Pick Your Poison” routine.
“Beef stroganoff or cheese ravioli,” a man with a tidily tucked shirt and a gold wristwatch asks me.
The girl next to me practically giggles with delight at the sight of her vegetarian platter, a steamy, potent combination of rice and curry. I look down grimly at the tray in front of me: shrink-wrapped white roll, a triangle of nuclear cheddar, something you might call a salad, and gray mess of overcooked beef and dry mashed potatoes sweating under a plastic cover. I find one carrot and two pieces of broccoli and forgo the rest. Better safe than sorry.
I drape my men’s coat over my head and do my best to fall asleep, which I think is successful in that I wake up hours later to the familiar sound of the food and beverage cart hulking down the galley. “Breakfast?” he asks. These questions always seem misleading, as though from them you could distill what is actually coming. “Sure,” I say, and then I remember that American Airlines has removed 90% of the components of their continental breakfast option, leaving only a sad croissant clinging to a paper doily and a round plastic container of orange drink.
Just beyond the bulkhead, I see a woman with shaky hands paw around for butter and jam to adorn her infinitely superior croissant, which stands, tall and flakey, upon a proper dish. I seriously want to know the cost difference between a shitty croissant and a real one, and if it’s done less as a measure for cost effectiveness and more to just further accentuate class hierarchy in life.
“Actually, it’s okay,” I say, handing my tray back to him, like a prisoner who would rather starve than suffer the indignities of his jailing.
Our tires hit the ground at 7 a.m. As usual, it’s darker outside than you’d imagine it to be. Here, the sun feels like it doesn’t come out until noon. I follow Business Class out the doors and trail the same silent parade of plastic wheels over red carpet as we walk through the white metal and glass corridors towards a “Sortie” sign.
French customs is the usual, disturbingly casual affair. I am asked no questions. My passport is stamped without hesitation.